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What Are Phthalates and Why Are They Dangerous

8 min read

Essential Takeaways

  • Home products such as wallpaper, hoses, ink, plastic wrap etc have been known to have traces of phthalates
  • High exposure to DEHP can affect your kidneys and reproductive systems
  • Phthalate exposure has also been tied to increased oxidative stress

Every day, a something new and health-related comes up and people discuss why it is good or bad for us. Studies have shown many benefits in a particular component to support why it is good for our health. However, this is not the case with the chemicals known as phthalates. These chemicals can be used in almost everything. But research has found that they are harmful to our health even though we may not know it.

What are phthalates?

In essence, the name represents a large group of chemicals. These chemicals are too many to study each one of them on its own. They are esters of phthalic acid which means that they are compounds derived from that acid. They are mainly used in plastics to make them more flexible, durable and even transparent. 

They are used in almost everything plastic that you can think of. For instance, home products such as wallpaper, hoses, ink, plastic wrap etc have been known to have traces of phthalates. Industrial materials such as adhesives, detergents, wires and cables and even varnishes contain the chemicals. Other than that, medical products such as feeding tubes, dialysis equipment and fluid bags are also on the list. Feminine products such as perfume and hairspray also contain phthalates. Essentially, anything that is made up of plastic can have different types of these chemicals.

Why are phthalates dangerous?

As mentioned, there are different types of phthalates used in many products and thus their effects can be different. But, one thing is for sure, phthalates are not safe. One example is the diethylhexyl phthalate or better known as DEHP. This compound can be found in many household products. These include cables, shower curtains and many car interior materials. Thus, you are bound to encounter it almost anywhere you are. This is just to inform you that be keen.

Many products can expose you to the compound. You can inhale, ingest or even touch materials with the chemical. While you might think that ingestion is highly unlikely, many people store their food in plastic containers that most definitely contaminate the food especially when hot. We also breathe in the chemicals when we inhale dust from materials that have the compounds. Additionally, people that use cosmetics that contain the phthalate are most likely to inhale it since they apply it around the nose. People who also work in industrial areas producing such consumer goods are also at high risk of exposure. 

Therefore, high exposure to DEHP can affect your kidneys and testicles as studies have shown. This type of phthalate is particularly dangerous to young males and can increase the size of kidneys and kidney stones. On the other hand, it can reduce the size of the testes hence having a negative effect on the sperm produced. As a result, sexual development and fertility in male can be adversely affected when exposed to DEHP. 

Furthermore, phthalate exposure has also been tied to increased oxidative stress. This is a condition in which there is an increase in the reactive oxygen species in the body. Oxidative stress thus does not enable the body to detoxify and hence it is harmful to our health. In fact, it contributes to dangerous ailments such as autism, Asperger, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and even heart failure. Oxidative stress has also been known to have a thriving effect on liver disease. These are generally known as neurodegenerative conditions. These diseases signify the lack of working antioxidants in the body. Antioxidants reduce oxidative stress and hence protect the body from such ailments. As a result, exposure to some phthalates reduces the antioxidant capacity and thus increasesthe risk of developing such diseases. Actually, there are studies that have shown that individuals with high phthalate exposure are likely to suffer from oxidative damage especially for young people.

Another common form of phthalates is the Diethyl phthalate (DEP) that is also used in cosmetics. Studies have also shown that it is mostly used in many products that are produced using fragrances. This includes hair products, detergents, fabric softeners and make-up products. There are much more intimate products that contain DEP including bath salts, toothbrushes and aftershaves. Since many cosmetic products can have this compound, exposure is common.

Other phthalates also affect women’s reproductive systems. For instance, dibutyl Phthalate, DBP, in high concentrations increases hypothyroidism. This is a condition where the thyroid gland does not produce enough of the thyroid hormone. This especially affects pregnant women and can cause other health complications during the pregnancy. High exposure to this phthalate is therefore harmful to both the mother and the child.

Out of all the people mentioned to be at risk of exposure, children face the highest risk. Young ones come into contact with plastics all the time. This is especially true because most of their toys are made from plastic. Furthermore, they are always in the habit of putting things in their mouth and ingesting phthalates is something that we will always have to worry about. They touch everything and the equipment used in hospitals for treatment can also increase their exposure. As you can see, it is important to ask what are phthalates and why are they dangerous for the health of the children. 

Therefore, based on the studies carried out, phthalates can potentially cause harm to our reproductive systems, kidneys, liver and lungs. As a matter of fact, phthalates have been associated with hormonal imbalances and breast cancer in women. Animal studies have shown that these chemicals are indeed harmful to the test subjects. In an effort to reduce such risks, governments are carrying out studies that continue to reveal the minimum level of exposure that will keep consumers safe. Low level of exposure is not harmful and it is imperative for us to find out at what point do these chemicals becoming dangerously high in our bodies. However, phthalate use for the production of cosmetics in Europe has been banned. Therefore, it is important to be cautious of what you consume as such chemicals might be causing continuous harm in our bodies. 

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